Tag Archives: 2021 Reviews

Stoned, immaculate: 10 essential albums of 1971

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 20, 2021)

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Have you heard the good word? Brothers and sisters, can I testify?

I joined the church in the early 70s, when I was a teenager. The Church of Christgau. I worshiped at the altar of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and studied the Holy C’s: Creem, Circus, and Crawdaddy. Yea, I found enlightenment poring through those sacred tablets and learning the words of the prophets: Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Ed Ward, Richard Meltzer, Lisa Robinson, Jon Landau, Cameron Crowe, Paul Krassner, et.al.

Oh, I was aware of music prior to the 70s; growing up as I did during the golden age of top 40, I have those “super sounds of the 60s and 70s” burned into my neurons, (consciously or not) to this day. But it wasn’t until the late 60s (after buying my first FM radio) that I came to realize my developing taste in music wasn’t necessarily reflected by the pop charts. I couldn’t put a name to it, as “classic rock” was yet to be labeled as such.

By the late 60s, the genre broadly labeled “rock ‘n’ roll” was progressing by leaps and bounds; “splintering”, as it were. Sub-genres were propagating; folk-rock, blues-rock, jazz-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock, funk-rock, Latin-rock, Southern rock, etc.

In the wake of The Beatles’ influential Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which notably yielded no singles) recording artists began to rethink the definition of an “album”. Maybe an LP didn’t have to be a 12” collection of radio-friendly “45s” with a hole in the middle; perhaps you could view the album as a “whole”, with a unifying theme at its center.

This was moving too fast for AM, which required a steady supply of easy-to-digest 3 minute songs to buffer myriad stop sets. Yet, there was something interesting happening over on the FM dial. The “underground” format, which sprouted somewhat organically in 1967 on stations like WOR-FM and WNEW-FM in New York City, had caught on nationally by the end of the decade, providing a platform for deep album cuts.

Consequently the early 70s was an exciting and innovative era for music, which I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of since. For a generation, this music mattered…it wasn’t just background noise or something to dance to. This beautiful exploding headband of sounds demanded its scribes. And thus it was that God (or somebody who plays him on TV) created the “music journalist” to help spread the gospel, blues and jazz that became Rock.

And he saw that it was Goode. And I have been a member of the congregation ever since.

It should be obvious to anyone who has followed my weekly scribbles at Hullabaloo (great googly moogly…have I been doing this for 15 years?!) that I primarily write about film. I love writing about film. But my first love (we never forget our first love) was music. In fact, my first published piece was a review of King Crimson’s A Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, in 1973. Granted, it was for my high school newspaper and upwards of dozens must have read it, but for that brief shining moment…I was Lester Bangs (in my mind).

Which brings us back to 1971. Hard to believe that was 50 years ago. An outstanding year for music, with an embarrassment of riches. Sifting a “top 10” from that heap of classic vinyl was crazy-making (if I hadn’t allowed myself the “next 10” at the bottom of the post, my head would have exploded). I’m sure I’ve “overlooked” or “misplaced” your favorite…let’s just say it’s duly noted in advance. So here you go, in alphabetical order…

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AqualungJethro Tull

After toying with various combinations of blues, English folk, jazz, and straight-ahead hard rock, Jethro Tull finally found the winning formula in their 4th outing that defines their “sound” to this day.

While songwriter/lead vocalist/flutist/acoustic guitarist Ian Anderson historically scoffs at the suggestion, Aqualung is generally regarded as Tull’s first concept album (although arguably the follow-up, 1972’s Thick as a Brick fits the definition of ‘concept album’ more snugly). There is definitely some sharp running commentary about organized religion and associative societal issues in this particular song cycle. Regardless, the song craft is superb and the band is in top form; especially guitarist Martin Barre, who establishes himself here as one of rock’s greatest axe men.

Choice cuts: “Aqualung”, “Cross-Eyed Mary”, “Mother Goose”, “Up to Me”, “Hymn 43”, “Locomotive Breath”

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BlueJoni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell’s 4th album is so honest and intimate that every time I listen to it I feel a bit awkward…like I’m intruding on someone’s personal space. This extraordinary set features minimalist arrangements, giving ample room for her angelic pipes to breathe and soar. Mitchell accompanies herself on guitar, dulcimer and piano, with a little help from friends James Taylor, Steve Stills and Russ Kunkel. The Supremes covered “All I Want” on their 1972 album The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb, and Nazareth covered “This Flight Tonight” on their 1973 album Loud ‘n’ Proud.

Choice cuts: “All I Want”, “Blue”, “This Flight Tonight”, “A Case of You”, “Carey”, “River”.

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Electric WarriorT. Rex

Flying saucer, take me away. The year before Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to Earth, T. Rex landed the glam rock mothership with their breakthrough album. Originally formed as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1967, songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Marc Bolan and percussionist/obvious Tolkien fan Steve Peregrin Took (aka Steve Porter) put out several albums of psychedelia-tinged folk before going their separate ways in 1970. Mickey Finn replaced Took, and Bolan recruited additional personnel and shortened the name to T. Rex in 1970.

Bolan’s coupling of power chord boogie with pan-sexual stage attire turned heads, making him the (literal) poster boy for what came to be labeled “glam-rock” (although, to my ears Bolan’s songs are rooted in traditional Chuck Berry riffs and straight-ahead blues-rock…albeit with enigmatic and absurdist lyrics). Ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie) contribute backing vocals on most tracks.

Choice cuts: “Mambo Sun”, “Jeepster”, “Cosmic Dancer”, “Bang a Gong”, “Planet Queen”, “Life’s a Gas”.

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L.A. WomanThe Doors

The first time I heard “Riders on the Storm” was in 1971. I was 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. It was my introduction to aural film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.“There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.” Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.

Jim Morrison’s vocals got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick. Sadly the album the song was taken from, L.A. Woman was the last Doors LP released while Morrison was alive (he died shortly after). Jim sounds just like the bluesy, boozy, Baudelaire he was at the end…but clearly the music remained his “special friend”.

Choice cuts: “Love Her Madly”, “Been Down So Long”, “L.A. Woman”, “Hyacinth House”, “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)”, “Riders on the Storm”.

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Led Zeppelin IVLed Zeppelin

By the time they began working on a 4th album, Led Zeppelin had already set a high bar for themselves. 1969 saw the release of their eponymous debut and its hard-rocking follow-up Led Zeppelin II, and in 1970 they one-upped themselves with the eclectic Led Zeppelin III, which displayed influences ranging from Delta blues, English folk, heavy metal, country, and bluegrass to Middle Eastern music. 

As history has proven, Led Zeppelin IV (also known as “The Runes Album”) not only easily cleared that bar, but features a bevy of cuts that have become “Classic Rock” FM staples. One cut in particular…“Stairway to Heaven”…has become the most instantly recognizable power ballad of all time (as well as the bane of ear-fatigued guitar store employees).

Choice cuts: “Black Dog”, “Battle of Evermore”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “Misty Mountain Hop”,  “Going to California”, “When the Levee Breaks”.

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Master of Reality – Black Sabbath

For me, Master of Reality is the most “Sabbath-y” of Sabbath albums. For their third outing, the band had the luxury of more studio time than on the previous two albums. Consequently they did more experimenting; e.g. guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler tuned their guitars down to D# and C# standard on several tracks, creating an even more ominous “sound” than on Black Sabbath and Paranoid (Iommi had already been down-tuning for live sets for some time, to compensate for chronic pain he suffered from two severed fingertips on his fretting hand). While there are plenty of heavy, riff-driven rockers in this set, there are also interludes of gentility, like Iommi’s lovely acoustic instrumental “Orchid” and the Moody Blues-ish “Solitude”.

Choice cuts: “Sweet Leaf”, “After Forever”, “Children of the Grave”, “Into the Void”, “Orchid”, “Solitude”.

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Tapestry – Carole King

I think of this as Carole King’s “first” solo album; but it’s really her second. Let’s be honest…who remembers her 1970 debut Writer? While Writer has some great tracks, Tapestry is so perfect that if King had decided to retire then and there, her place as one of America’s greatest songwriters would be assured.

Besides, she had already been composing hits for a decade prior to stepping into the spotlight as a performer herself (for a period in the 60s, she and then-husband Gerry Goffin co-wrote hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Some Kind of Wonderful”, “The Loco-motion”, “Go Away, Little Girl”, “Up on the Roof”, “One Fine Day”, “I’m Into Something Good”, “Don’t Bring Me Down”, “Goin’ Back”, and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”). Out of the gate with those songwriting chops, plus a beautiful voice and prowess on keys? Fuhgetabouit!

Choice cuts: “I Feel the Earth Move”, “So Far Away”, “It’s Too Late”, “Home Again”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)”.

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There’s a Riot Goin’ On – Sly & the Family Stone

Sly & the Family Stone’s 5th album marked a radical departure from the band’s established formula of good-time, up-tempo funk & roll; and it had nearly everything to do with band leader Sly Stone’s increasing drug use. It is not only detectable in Sly’s junked-out vocalizing on many tracks, but in the darker, introspective lyrics and a palpable tension in the music. Almost perversely, Sly’s slipping creative focus created a new kind of laid back funk groove that was influential in its own right (especially thanks to liberal use of drum machines). This album has aged like a fine wine.

Choice cuts: “Just Like a Baby”, “Poet”, “Family Affair”, “(You Caught Me) Smilin’”, “Runnin’ Away”, “Thank You For Talkin’ to Me Africa”.

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Who’s Next – The Who

How do you follow up Tommy? Surely, Pete Townshend was feeling performance pressure, after the Who’s ambitious 1969 2-LP rock opera was so enthusiastically received by critics and live audiences. Sating fans with their now classic LP Live at Leeds in 1970 as a placeholder between studio projects paid off handsomely, as demonstrated by this memorable set…which for my money remains their most enduring album.

Comprised of several songs originally intended for a scrapped multimedia project called Lifehouse and top flight new material, the superbly produced Who’s Next suggested a progression to a more sophisticated sonic landscape for the band, albeit with no shortage of the Who’s patented power and majesty. For example, the band incorporated synthesizers into the mix for the first time, as well as utilizing guest musicians on several cuts (most notably violinist Dave Arbus and pianist Nicky Hopkins). One of the greatest albums of any year.

Choice cuts: “Baby O’Reilly”, “Bargain”, “The Song is Over”, “Goin’ Mobile”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

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The Yes Album – Yes

Long before MTV (or YouTube), my teenage self would while away many hours listening to Yes with a good set of cans, getting lost in Roger Dean’s otherworldly cover art, envisioning my own music videos (special effects courtesy of the joint that I rolled on the inside of the convenient gate-fold sleeve). Good times (OP sighs, takes moment of silence to reflect on a life tragically misspent).

Complex compositions informed by deeply layered textures, impeccable musicianship, heavenly harmonies, topped off by Jon Anderson’s ethereal vocals; an embodiment of all that is good about progressive rock (I know the genre has its detractors, to whom  I say…”You weren’t there, man!”). This was the third studio album for Yes, and it was then and remains now, my favorite of theirs. Perfection.

Choice cuts: “Yours is No Disgrace”, “Starship Trooper”, “I’ve Seen All Good People”, “Perpetual Change”. 

 

Bonus Tracks!

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Here are 10 more gems from 1971 worth a spin:

A Better LandBrian Auger & the Oblivion Express

Broken BarricadesProcol Harum

Hunky DoryDavid Bowie

In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster

KillerAlice Cooper

Live at Fillmore EastThe Allman Brothers

Madman Across the WaterElton John

Pieces of a Man – Gil Scott-Heron

Sticky FingersThe Rolling Stones

What’s Going OnMarvin Gaye

A dozen roses: 12 romantic comedies for Valentine’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 12, 2021)

With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, I thought that I would share my 12 favorite romantic comedies with you. So in a non-ranking alphabetical order, here we go:

Amelie-Yes, I know this one has its share of detractors-but writer-director Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film (co-written with Gillaume Laurant) has stolen my heart for life.

Audrey Tautou literally lights up the screen as a gregarious loner who decides to become a guardian angel (sometimes benign devil) and commit random acts of anonymous kindness. The plight of Amelie’s people in need is suspiciously like her own…those who need a little push to come out of self-imposed exiles and revel in life’s simple pleasures.

Of course, our heroine is really in search of her own happiness and fulfillment. Does she find it? You will have to see for yourself. Whimsical, inventive, life-affirming, and wholly original, Amelie should melt the most cynical of hearts.

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes gaga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player on the school team. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence-the girls are usually light years ahead of the boys in getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think, as Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy and understated irony. You may have trouble navigating those Scottish accents, but it’s worth the effort. Also with Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as the lead singer of 80s new wavers Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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Modern Romance (1981) – In his best romantic comedy (co-written by frequent collaborator Monica Johnson), writer-director Albert Brooks (the inventor of “cringe” comedy) casts himself as a film editor who works for American International Pictures. His obsessive-compulsiveness makes him great at his job, but a pain-in-the-ass to his devoted girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), who is becoming exasperated with his penchant to impulsively break up with her one day, then beg her to take him back the next.

There are many inspired scenes, particularly a sequence where a depressed Brooks takes Quaaludes and drunk dials every woman he’s ever dated (like Bob Newhart, Brooks is a master of “the phone bit”). Another great scene features Brooks and his assistant editor (the late Bruno Kirby, in one of his best roles) laying down Foley tracks in the post-production sessions for a cheesy sci-fi movie. Brooks’ brother, the late Bob Einstein (a regular on Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a wry cameo as a sportswear clerk. Also with George Kennedy (as “himself”) and real-life film director James L. Brooks (no relation) playing Brooks’ boss.

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Next Stop, Wonderland – Writer/director Brad Anderson’s intelligent and easygoing fable about love and serendipity made me a Hope Davis fan for life. Davis plays a laid back Bostonian who finds her love life set adrift after her pompous environmental activist boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suddenly decides that dashing off to save the earth is more important than sustaining their relationship.

Her story is paralleled with that of a charming and unassuming single fellow (Alan Gelfant) who aspires to become a marine biologist. Both parties find themselves politely deferring to well-meaning friends and relatives who are constantly trying to fix them up with dates. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that these two may be destined to end up together. The film seems to have been inspired by A Man and a Woman, right down to its breezy bossa nova/samba soundtrack.

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Play it Again, Sam – I don’t know what it is about this particular Woody Allen vehicle (directed by Herbert Ross), but no matter how many times I have viewed it over the years, I laugh just as hard at all the one-liners as I did the first time I saw it. Annie Hall and Manhattan may be his most highly lauded and artistically accomplished projects, but for pure “laughs per minute”, I would nominate this 1972 entry, with a screenplay adapted by Allen from his own original stage version.

Allen portrays a film buff with a Humphrey Bogart obsession. He fantasizes that he’s getting pointers from Bogie’s ghost (played to perfection by Jerry Lacy) who advises him on how to “be a man” and attract the perfect mate. He receives some more pragmatic assistance from his best friends, a married couple (Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts) who fix him up with a series of women (the depictions of the various dating disasters are hilarious beyond description). A classic.

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She’s Gotta Have It – “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of writer-director Spike Lee’s earlier, funny films (his debut, actually). A sexy, hip, and fiercely independent young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles relationships with three men, who are all quite aware of each other’s existence.

Lee steals his own film by casting himself as the goofiest and most memorable of the three suitors- “Mars”, a trash-talking version of the classic Woody Allen nebbish. Lee milks laughs from the huffing and puffing by the competing paramours, as each jockeys for the alpha position (and makes some keen observations regarding sexist machismo and male vanity). Spike’s dad Bill Lee composed a lovely jazz-pop score. A milestone for modern indie cinema.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. A genteel Southern neurotic (Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams), McElwee has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the funniest and most thought-provoking films that most people have never seen. Viewers weaned on reality TV and Snapchat may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition.

Sherman’s March actually began as a history piece, a project aiming to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South during the Civil War, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate. Despite its daunting 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time I saw it. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is worth a peek as well.

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Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are not usually mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas.

Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a few lovers herself. Love in all its guises is represented by a bevy of richly drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (the inspiration for Bergman admirer Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy).

Fast-paced, literate, and sensuous, Smiles of a Summer Night has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy. Gorgeously photographed by Gunnar Fischer (he was also cinematographer for Bergman’s classics Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal).

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The Tall Guy –Deftly directed by British TV comic Mel Smith with a high-brow/low-brow blend of sophisticated cleverness and riotous vulgarity (somehow he makes it work), this is the stuff cult followings are made of.

Jeff Goldblum is an American actor working on the London stage, who is love struck by an English nurse (Emma Thompson). Rowan Atkinson is a hoot as Goldblum’s employer, a London stage comic beloved by his audience but an absolute backstage terror to cast and crew. The most hilariously choreographed sex scene ever put on film alone is worth the price of admission; and the extended set-piece, a staged musical version of The Elephant Man (a brilliant takeoff on Andrew Lloyd Webber) had me on the floor. An underrated gem.

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Tampopo – Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the eponymous character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Alan Ladd in Shane). Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

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A Touch of Class  – Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) this 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. George Segal and Glenda Jackson make a great comedy tag team as a married American businessman and British divorcee (respectively) who, following two chance encounters in London, quickly realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair.

The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. Segal has always shown a genius for screen comedy, but I think Jackson steals the film (and gets off some of the best zingers, with her impeccably droll “English-ness”).

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Two for the Road – A swinging 60s version of Scenes from a Marriage. Director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) whips up a cinematic soufflé; folding in a sophisticated script by Frederick Raphael, a generous helping of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, a dash of colorful European locales, and topping it with a cherry of a score by Henry Mancini.

Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true, lasting commitment. Finney and Hepburn have an electric on-screen chemistry.

Home games: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 6, 2021)

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I know football fans are jazzed this weekend, and I don’t want to be a Gloomy Gus, but

Skip the parties that could turn Super Bowl Sunday into Superspreader Sunday, experts and government officials are pleading ahead of America’s biggest sports day.

This year’s matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers comes as the nation remains in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, and as new variants are spreading. On a weekend usually defined by packed in bars and gatherings in living rooms, with fans screaming at televisions and sharing spreads of finger food, authorities are urging smaller, quieter celebrations.

“I can’t say it seriously enough: I want everyone who is celebrating this Sunday’s game to be back next year, and that means not allowing 2,000 more Kansas Citians to die,” Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas said in an interview. “I’m a lifelong fan of the Chiefs, but I am more of a fan of people’s families sticking around and staying alive.”

Me too! Long-time listener, first-time caller…BIG fan of staying alive! Surely by now, the harsh realities of the pandemic have sunk in, and people will heed the warnings.

Uh, right?

Already, though, there are signs a pandemic-weary public may not heed yet another call to forgo tradition. In the host city of Tampa, parties are being planned with performances by top musical acts. In Kansas City, news that no parade would follow a potential Chiefs victory drew a backlash from officials in a neighboring county.

A quarter of Americans plan to attend a Super Bowl party, a recent Seton Hall Sports Poll found. […]

Indoor Super Bowl parties are “creating a perfect environment to accelerate new transmission chains, because that person gets infected, doesn’t realize it, sees their parents,” said David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“When given an opportunity,” he added, “a more transmissible strain will spread more rapidly.”

Oh, dear. A quarter of Americans?! Let’s see, the U.S. population is 328,000,000; divided by 4=82,000,000. Yeah, but what percentage out of that number are football fans? Not a fan myself, but how popular is football in America, compared to other sports, I wonder?

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Oh, crap. Well, by all means enjoy the game this Sunday, but as safely as possible. This is a reachable goal. Speaking of goals-why not kick off Superbowl Weekend by watching some sports movies? I’ve put together a list of 10 personal faves for you. Ladies and gentlemen…start your remotes! And hey…save some of that guac for me (no double dipping).

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Bend it Like Beckham Writerdirector Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that cleverly marries up “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood-style exuberance. The story centers on a headstrong young woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her traditional Sikh parents by following her “silly” dream to become an English soccer star. Chadha also weaves in subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

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Breaking Away – This beautifully realized slice of middle-Americana (filmed in Bloomington, Indiana) from director Peter Yates and writer Steve Tesich (an Oscar-winning screenplay) is a perfect film on every level. More than just a sports movie, it’s an insightful coming of age tale and a rumination on small town life.

Dennis Christopher is outstanding as a 19 year-old obsessed with bicycle racing, a pretty coed and anything Italian. He and his pals (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) are all on the cusp of adulthood and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley give warm and funny performances as Christopher’s blue-collar parents.

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Bull Durham – Writer-director Ron Shelton really knocked one out of the park with this very funny, well-written and splendidly acted rumination on life, love, and oh yeah-baseball. Kevin Costner gives one of his better performances as a seasoned, world-weary minor league catcher who reluctantly plays mentor to a somewhat dim hotshot rookie pitcher (Tim Robbins). Susan Sarandon is a poetry-spouting baseball groupie who selects one player every season to take under her wing and do some special mentoring of her own. A complex love triangle ensues. It’s Jules and Jim meets The Natural.

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Downhill Racer – This frequently overlooked 1969 gem from director Michael Ritchie examines the tightly knit and highly competitive world of Olympic downhill skiing. Robert Redford is cast against type, and consequently delivers one of his more interesting performances as a talented but arrogant athlete who joins up with the U.S. Olympic ski team. Gene Hackman is outstanding as the coach who finds himself at loggerheads with Redford’s contrariety. Ritchie’s film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge.

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Fat City – John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski). Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell).

Like most character studies, this film chugs along at the speed of life (i.e., not a lot “happens”), but the performances are so well fleshed out you forget you’re witnessing “acting”. One scene in particular, in which Keach and Tyrell’s characters first hook up in a sleazy bar, is a veritable masterclass in the craft.

Granted, it’s one of the most depressing films you’ll ever see (think Barfly meets The Wrestler), but still well worth your time. Masterfully directed by Huston, with “lived-in” natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film.

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Hoop Dreams – One of the most highly praised documentaries of all time, with good reason. Ostensibly “about” basketball, it is at its heart about perseverance, love, and family; which is probably why it struck such a chord with audiences as well as critics.

Director Steve James follows the lives of two young men from the inner city for a five-year period, as they pursue their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. Just when you think you have the film pigeonholed, it takes off in unexpected directions, making for a much more riveting story than you’d expect. A winner.

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North Dallas Forty – Nick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a spirited ensemble cast in this locker room peek at pro football players and the political machinations of team owners. Some of the vignettes are allegedly based on the real-life hi-jinks of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with wild parties and other assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning is perfect as the coach. Peter Gent adapted the screenplay from his original novel. This film is so entertaining that I can almost forgive director Ted Kotcheff for foisting Rambo: First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s on us a bit later on in his career.

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Personal Best – When this film was released, there was so much fuss over a couple brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most realistic and empowering portrayals of female athletes to date. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time observing Olympic track stars at work and at play. The women are shown to be every bit as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly deliver fearless performances. Scott Glenn is excellent as a hard driving coach.

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Slapshot – Paul Newman skates away with his role as the coach of a slumping minor league hockey team in this puckish satire (sorry), directed by George Roy Hill. In a desperate play to save the team, Newman decides to pull out all the stops and play dirty.

The entire ensemble is wonderful, and screenwriter Nancy Dowd’s riotously profane locker room dialog will have you rolling. Newman’s Cool Hand Luke co-star Strother Martin (as the team’s manager) handily steals all of his scenes. Lindsey Crouse (in a rare comedic role) is memorable as a sexually frustrated “sports wife” . Michael Ontkean performs the funniest striptease bit in film history and the cheerfully truculent “Hanson Brothers” are a hoot.

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This Sporting Life – This early Lindsay Anderson effort from 1963 was one of the “angry young man” dramas that stormed out of the U.K. in the late 50s and early 60s, steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and working class angst. A young, Brando-like Richard Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical rugby player with a natural gift for the game who becomes an overnight sports star.

Extra innings!

Here are 10 more recommendations:

Any Given Sunday

Bang the Drum Slowly

Cool Runnings

Field of Dreams

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

The Longest Yard (1974)

The Natural

Raging Bull

Rocky

When We Were Kings

No music, no life: Top 10 music docs of the decade

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 30, 2021)

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Without music, life would be a mistake. – Friedrich Nietzsche

After 11 months of hunkering down, I’d imagine “Netflix fatigue” is setting in for some (you know…when you spend more time scrolling for something “interesting” than actually watching anything). Buck up, little camper… there are still many worthwhile films-you just need to know where to look. With that in mind, I’ve combed my 2011-2020 review archives and picked out the 10 top music docs of the decade. If music be the food of love, play on!

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the “power pop” genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).

Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine 2013 rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados.

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Gimme DangerWell it’s 1969 OK, all across the USA/It’s another year for me and you/Another year with nuthin’ to do/Last year I was 21, I didn’t have a lot of fun/And now I’m gonna be 22/I say oh my, and a boo-hoo (from “1969” by The Stooges)

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, perhaps best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? That’s one of the revelations in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 cinematic fan letter to one of his idols.

Jarmusch is a bit nebulous regarding the breakups, reunions, and shuffling of personnel that ensued during the band’s heyday (1967-1974), but that may not be so much his conscious choice as it is acquiescing to (present day) Iggy’s selective recollections (Iggy does admit drugs were a factor).

While Jarmusch also interviews original Stooges Ron Asheton (guitar), and his brother Scott Asheton (drums), their footage is sparse (sadly, both have since passed away). Bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975, is relegated to archival interviews. Guitarist James Williamson (who played on Raw Power) and alt-rock Renaissance man Mike Watt (the latter-day Stooges bassist) contribute anecdotes as well.

A few nitpicks aside, this is the most comprehensive retrospective to date regarding this influential band; it was enough to make this long-time fan happy, and to perhaps enlighten casual fans, or the curious. (Full review)

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Heart of a Dog – I love Laurie Anderson’s voice. In fact, it was love at first sound, from the moment I heard “O Superman” wafting from my FM radio late one night back in the early 1980s. It was The Voice…at once maternal, sisterly, wise, reassuring, confiding, lilting, impish. Hell, she could read the nutritional label on a box of corn flakes out loud…and to me it would sound artful, thoughtful, mesmerizing.

It’s hard to describe her 2015 film; I’m struggling mightily not to pull out the good old reliable “visual tone poem”. (Moment of awkward silence). Okay, I blinked first…it’s a visual tone poem, alright? Even Anderson herself is a somewhat spectral presence in her own movie, which (like the artist herself), is an impressionistic mixed media mélange of drawings, animations, video, and even vintage super 8 family movies from her childhood.

You could say that Death is Anderson’s co-pilot on this journey to the center of her mind. But it’s not a sad journey. It’s melancholy and deeply reflective, but it’s never sad. (Full review)

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Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue – In Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary, we see a fair amount of “Janis Joplin”, the confident and powerful cosmic blues-rocker; but the primary focus of the film is one Janis Lyn Joplin, the vulnerable and insecure “little girl blue” from Port Arthur, Texas who lived inside her right up until her untimely overdose at age 27 in 1970.

“She” is revealed via excerpts drawn from an apparent trove of private letters, confided in ingratiating fashion by whisky-voiced narrator Chan Marshall (aka “Cat Power”). This is what separates Berg’s film from Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary Janis, which leaned exclusively on archival interviews and performance footage. Berg mines clips from the same vaults, but renders a more intimate portrait, augmented by present-day insights from Joplin’s siblings, close friends, fellow musicians, and significant others.

Despite undercurrents of melancholy and sadness and considering that we know going in that it is not going to have a Hollywood ending, the film is surprisingly upbeat. Joplin’s intelligence, sense of humor and joie de vivre shine through as well, and Berg celebrates her legacy of empowerment for a generation of female musicians who followed in her wake. On one long dark night of her soul, that “ball and chain” finally got too heavy to manage, but not before she was able to wield it to knock down a few doors. (Full review)

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice – Ronstadt (and that truly wondrous voice) is the subject of this intimate 2019 documentary portrait by directing tag team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Howl, Lovelace). The film is narrated by Ronstadt herself (archival footage aside, she only appears on camera briefly at the end of the film).

Bad news first (this is a matter of public record, so not a spoiler). While Ms. Ronstadt herself is still very much with us, sadly “that wondrous voice” is not. In 2012 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (she mentions in the film that it runs in her family), which has profoundly affected her ability to sing. That said, she remains sharp as a tack; in turns deeply thoughtful and charmingly self-effacing as she reflects on her life and career.

For those of us “of a certain age”, Ronstadt’s songbook is so ingrained in our neurons that we rarely stop to consider what an impressive achievement it was for her to traverse so much varied musical terrain-and to conquer it so effortlessly at each turn.

What struck me most as I watched the film is her humility in the wake of prodigious achievement. I don’t get an impression the eclecticism stems from calculated careerism, but rather from a genuine drive for artistic exploration. (Full review)

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Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool  – Few artists are as synonymous with “cool” as innovative musician-arranger-band leader Miles Davis. That’s not to say he didn’t encounter some sour notes during his ascent to the pantheon of jazz (like unresolved issues from growing up in the shadow of domestic violence, and traumatic run-ins with racism-even at the height of fame). Sadly, as you learn while watching Stanley Nelson’s slick and engrossing 2019 documentary, much of the dissonance in Davis’ life journey was of his own making (substance abuse, his mercurial nature). Such is the dichotomy of genius.

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Produced by George Martin – While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.

Martin is profiled in this engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary. The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.

Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.

81 at the time of filming, Martin (who passed away in 2016) is spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how betrayed he felt when John Lennon curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who infamously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda – There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s 2018 documentary where his subject, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with various “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one single note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”

One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could also say it is but a series of such Zen moments, a deeply reflective and meditative glimpse at the most intimate workings of the creative process. It’s also a document of Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after taking a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film.

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The Theory of Obscurity  – As defined in The Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents (and by the artists themselves) the Residents are not a “band” …so much as they are an ongoing art installation.

In his 2016 film, Director Don Hardy Jr. took on the unenviable task of profiling a band who have not only refused to reveal their faces in any billed public appearances over a 40-year career but continue to this day to willfully obfuscate their backstory (and the fact that publicity is handled through their self-managed “Cryptic Corporation” puts the kibosh on any hopes of discovery).

Attempting to describe their music almost begs its own thesis-length dissertation; it’s best understood by simply sampling it yourself. Just don’t expect anything conventional. Or consistent; they are experimental in every sense of the word.

The Residents have been more musically influential than one may assume; members of Devo, Primus, Ween and the Talking Heads are on hand to testify as such. I was a little surprised that Daft Punk isn’t mentioned, especially since they literally wear their influences on their sleeves (well, in this case, their heads). While The Residents are not for all tastes, Hardy has fashioned an ingratiating, maybe even definitive, portrait of them. (Full review)

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The Wrecking Crew – “The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.

This 2015 documentary was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the team.

Tedesco traces origins of the Wrecking Crew, from participation in co-creating the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with Brian Wilson (most notably, on the Beach Boys’ seminal Pet Sounds album) and backing sessions with just about any other chart-topping artists of the era you would care to mention.

Tedesco has curated fascinating vintage studio footage, as well as archival and present-day interviews with key players. You also hear from some of the producers who utilized their talents. Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes…and they have got some great stories to tell. Tedesco’s film is a celebration of a unique era of popular art that (love it or loathe it), literally provided the “soundtrack of our lives” for some of us of a (ahem) certain age. (Full review).

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 23, 2021)

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I’m taking a break from sticky floors and stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then 20 (damn my OCD!).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and occasionally re-watch favorite episodes as an (alleged) adult. You can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down here.

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously struck Ricky Gervais’ fancy.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect many of the show runners of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born when Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; but its cheeky social satire is a perfect match.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.

 

 

Paging Upton Sinclair: Mank (***½) & Martin Eden (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2021)

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Herman J. Mankiewicz: Irving [Thalberg], you are a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty. […]

Mankiewicz [In a later scene, referring to his dinner host William Randolph Hearst] …he’s EXACTLY what our Don used to be! An idealist, ya get it? And not only that, his nemesis [gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair] is the same guy who once predicted that our Quixote would one day preside over a socialist revolution. Our Quixote looks into the mirror of his youth and decides to break this glass, a maddening reminder of who he once was. [Pointing at fellow dinner guest Louis B. Mayer] Assisted by his faithful Sancho.

from Mank, screenplay by Jack Fincher

Russ Brissenden: I’m warning you, Martin…don’t waste time. How many people do you see starve to death or go to jail because they are nothing else but wretches, stupid and ignorant slaves? Fight for them, Martin. Fight for socialism.

Martin Eden: You and I have nothing to do with socialists! Yet you insist on spending time with them!

Russ Brissenden: Socialism is inevitable. The slaves have now become too many. Anything is preferable to the pigs that govern now. Socialism will give a sense to your writing, Martin. It might be the only thing that will save you from the disappointment that’s approaching.

Martin Eden: What disappointment? [End scene]

– from Martin Eden, screenplay by Maurizio Brariucci & Pietro Marcello

It is tempting to suggest that, aside from the fact that David Fincher’s Mank and Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden are films about writers (the former a real-life figure and the latter a fictional character), they are also both “about” socialism. But they are not really, at least not in any didactic way. I will venture to suggest that they do merge in a tangential way, with a minor fender-bender at the intersection of Jack London and Upton Sinclair.

I came to this ‘epiphany’ in my usual bumbling fashion. Being a lazy bastard, I have been putting off writing a review of Mank (which has been available on Netflix since early December). This time of year, less screener links come my way than usual (even publicists need a holiday break, I suppose), so with nothing new to cover this week I went for the low-hanging fruit, planning to devote this post to Mank. Murphy’s Law being what it is, I was offered a crack at Martin Eden, a film I had already been intrigued to see.

Martin Eden is based on Jack London’s eponymous novel. I admit I have never read it, which may have worked in my favor, as I went into it with no expectations and an open mind. Good thing too, as I gather that some London purists are upset that the director and co-writer Maurizio Braucci transposed a tale originally set in early 1900s America to an unspecified (mid to latter?) 20th-Century period in Italy, chockablock with anachronisms.

When we are introduced to the strapping Martin (Luca Marinelli) he’s a drunken sailor pulling an all-night pub crawl, boning and grogging his way down the waterfront and sleeping it off al fresco. When he awakens, he espies a slightly built young man getting bullied by a goon and springs to his rescue. The grateful Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi) invites Martin to have breakfast with his family, who turn out to be well to-do. This is where Martin meets Arturo’s pretty sister Elena (Jessica Cressy) who will be the love of his life.

The directionless (and penniless) Martin is enthralled and fascinated not only by Elena’s loveliness, but her education and refinement. Intuiting that his uneducated proletarian upbringing puts him out of her league, he decides then and there to become a man of letters, come hell or high water. Initially, Elena’s interest does not lean toward amour, but she is not immune to Martin’s innate charm. She also senses his natural intelligence; so, she begins to tutor him, encouraging him to expand his intellect (not unlike My Fair Lady, except in this scenario…Elena is Professor Higgins, and Martin is Eliza Doolittle).

Martin begins to write in earnest. At a soiree hosted by Elena’s family, Martin recites one of his poems, to polite applause. One of the guests is Russ Brissenden, an older gentleman of mysterious means. The straight-talking Brissenden tells Martin his poem had substance and was not appreciated by the bourgeoisie guests. Brissenden, a Socialist and writer himself, becomes a mentor, encouraging Martin to write about what he knows.

Eventually Martin and Elena’s relationship does develop into full-blown romance. However, when Martin tells her that he has decided to pursue writing as a living, he is puzzled and hurt when she tells him that the subjects that he chooses to write about are too “raw” and “real” and do not offer enough “hope” to people. She implies that if he does not find a trade to fall back on, she is afraid they will never be able to get married.

Martin goes to Brissenden for counseling. When Brissenden tells him that he needs to forget about pleasing Elena (bluntly referring to her as an “idiot”) and reset his priorities to focus solely on finding his voice as a writer, Martin sees red and physically attacks Brissenden. He immediately apologizes, as he now sees that Elena’s harsh appraisal of his work was not constructive criticism, so much as it was her outing herself as a classist.

In a narrative jump 2/3 of the way through, Martin has not only found his voice as a writer, essayist, and poet, but fame and fortune as such. He is also cynical, apolitical, and indifferent to success. He’s given most of his money away; mostly to those who helped him when he was struggling. At a public event, he sneeringly refers to himself as a “hoodlum and a sailor” to adoring fans. We get a sketch of Martin’s wilderness years between his breakup with Elena and achieving world acclaim, but with no explanation given for his apparent descent into a chronic state of existential malaise and self-loathing.

For the final third of the film, Martin tap-dances willy-nilly around the edges of the time-space continuum like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. In one scene, he watches a group of Fascist black shirts enjoying recreation at the beach. There are references to an imminent “war” involving Italy during what appears to be the late 70s…but then we see a vintage newsreel of a Nazi book burning in the 1930s. It is artfully constructed, which I suppose injects lyricism into Marcello’s film, but it somehow feels like window dressing.

Then again, if I may jump ahead and steal a line from Mank: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to leave an impression of one.” On the plus side, despite its overreaching themes Martin Eden is a pleasing throwback to class struggle dramas from the 60s and 70s like Visconti’s The Leopard and Bertolucci’s 1900.

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Regarding Upton Sinclair. He and Jack London were not only contemporaries, but mutual admirers of each other’s writings. Before he wrote The Jungle, the 1906 novel that put him on the map, Sinclair (who had over 90 books to his credit by his death in 1968 at the age of 90) is said to have been greatly influenced by People of the Abyss, London’s 1903 book about the slums of London’s East End. And here’s what London said of The Jungle:

“Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.”

That sounds awfully close to the kind of book that the (fictional) Socialist Russ Brissenden would love to see his (fictional) protégé Martin Eden write. Not a stretch, considering London was a Socialist. In fact, he and Sinclair were charter members of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Founded in 1905, the I.S.S. had a stated purpose to “throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism.”

But what’s most interesting about Martin Eden (commonly assumed to be a semi-autobiographical work), is that its protagonist rejects Socialism outright. According to Wiki, in the copy of the novel which he inscribed for Upton Sinclair, London wrote, “One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism (in the person of the hero). I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it.” And so it goes.

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For a guy who has been dead for 53 years, Upton Sinclair sure gets around a lot these days. Admittedly he has but a spectral “presence” in the margins of Martin Eden (as I explained above) but he gets a cameo and maybe a quarter-page of dialog in David Fincher’s Mank. Well, “he” as in a reasonable facsimile, in the person of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nye portrays Sinclair delivering a speech in his iteration as a politician, when he ran for Governor of California in 1934 (he ran as a Democrat and lost the race).

However, the focus of David Fincher’s Mank is Herman J. Mankiewicz – Hollywood screenwriter, inveterate gambler, world-class inebriate, and born tummler. More specifically, it is a (more-or-less accurate) chronicle of the part he played in the creation of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Which reminds me of a funny story.

Back in 2007, I published a review of a film wherein I innocuously referenced to The Princess Bride as “Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride.” At the time, Hullabaloo readers were able to comment on posts. Man, did I ever release the Kraken with that one. To say that I was beset upon is understatement. “ROB REINER’S The Princess Bride?! Ingrate! Philistine! Aren’t you aware that William Goldman wrote the screenplay?!” Yes, I was.

This sparked a lively discussion on “whose” film it was. Call me madcap, but I’m sure I’ve read and heard the phrase “Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause” many more times than the phrase “Stewart Stern’s Rebel Without a Cause” (as in never!). Of course I realize there’s no film without a screenwriter. And I’m also aware there are films written and directed by the same person. I just never got the memo about these shorthand “rules”.

So is it “Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane”? Or is it “Herman J. Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane”?

In his ambitious attempt to answer that million-dollar question in just over two hours, Fincher, armed with a sharp and literate screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher (who passed away in 2003; I’d hazard that this project was in development for a spell) has layered his biopic with enough Hollywood meta to make even Quentin Tarantino plotz.

The story opens in 1940, by which time Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has burned his bridges in Tinseltown, thanks to his sharp tongue and love of the bottle. Despite this (or perhaps he is attracted by Mank’s budget-friendly mix of writing prowess and financial desperation), Welles (Tom Burke) recruits him to write a screenplay for his first film. Welles, with a commanding and formidable presence that belied his 24 years, was a hard man to say “no” to. He had already made a splash in radio and theater and had just signed an unprecedented contract with RKO which gave him full creative control of his projects.

Mank is convalescing from an auto accident that has left him bedridden with a broken leg. Welles has set him up at an isolated ranch house in Victorville, California, where Mank dictates his screenplay to his British secretary (Lily Collins). In a slightly cruel but pragmatic move, Wells has also provided Mank with a cabinet full of liquor (surreptitiously laced with Seconal) at the foot of the bed…out of reach. This dangles a carrot for motivation to heal up and focus on writing, but also (sort of) guarantees rationing.

Welles enlists his producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to make house calls to keep tabs on Mank’s progress with the script (which eventually tops 300 pages, much to Houseman’s chagrin). As Mank toils on his tome, flashbacks to the 1930s are cleverly interwoven to tell both the story of Mank’s mercurial career in the Hollywood studio system, as well as illustrate how his equally mercurial acquaintanceship with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s lover, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) provided the grist for creating the characters in Citizen Kane. (in the event Citizen Kane remains unchecked on your bucket list, that would be the one where “Charles Foster Kane” unquestionably rhymes with “William Randolph Hearst”).

Film buffs who have given Citizen Kane a spin will enjoy playing “spot the visual quote”, as Fincher has festooned them throughout (nice B&W photography by Erik Messerschmidt adds to the verisimilitude). The elder Fincher’s script gives the characters much to chew on, particularly Oldman, who merrily fires off Mank’s droll barbs with deadly accuracy. Fine work by a large cast that includes Ferdinand Kingsley (as Irving Thalberg), Arless Howard (as Louis B. Mayer), Tom Pelphrey (as Mank’s brother Joseph) and Tuppence Middleton playing Mank’s long-suffering but devoted wife Sara.

As far as resolving “whose” film Citizen Kane is…here’s one take, from a recent BFI essay by the always insightful Farran Smith Nehme (who blogs as the Self-Styled Siren):

Herman had a wealth of pent-up ideas – about lonely boyhoods, about newspapermen, about loyalty and hubris. Over the course of his stay in Victorville, Mankiewicz poured it all into 325 pages of a script called ‘American’, the extravagant title seeming to confirm that there was too much material for one movie to contain. In Mank, brother Joe tells him: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” and for Herman, the confirmation is already superfluous.

Mank shows that Herman had signed a contract and accepted a bonus on the condition that Welles would get sole credit, but once the work is done, Herman reneges. The movie implies that in this instance, it was Welles punching up the script: “I’ll just run it through my typewriter,” he tells Herman.

People who revere Citizen Kane can choose whether or not to accept this scenario. Those who have read scholars such as Robert Carringer and Harlan Lebo excavating the surviving scripts and records at RKO, or essays by Joseph McBride or Jonathan Rosenbaum on the topic, almost certainly won’t.

In his 1978 biography, also titled Mank, Richard Meryman estimated Herman’s contribution to the final Kane script at 60 per cent, plus revisions he contributed later. Critic Pauline Kael, in her essay “Raising Kane”, put it at virtually 100 per cent, which even John Houseman said went too far. Houseman added, more to the point, that Citizen Kane “is Orson’s picture just as Stagecoach is John Ford’s picture, even though Dudley Nichols wrote it”.

Rule of thumb? Give credit where credit is due…when practical. Welles summed it up best when he said: “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.”

Who needs the Peace Corps: Zappa (****) & White Riot (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2021)

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“A lot of what [The Mothers of Invention] do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don’t feel their environment – they don’t worry about it – they’re not going to do anything to change it and something’s gotta be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.”

– Zappa, on Zappa…from Zappa

Directed by actor Alex Winter (yes…”Bill” as in “Bill & Ted”), Zappa (****) is the best film portrait of composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa I’ve seen to date (and I’ve seen a lot of ’em). Intimate and moving, it covers all aspects of his career, but it’s the first doc to (rightfully) position him as one of our greatest modern composers (not just a “rock star”).

While there are brief performance clips, this is not a Zappa performance film (there are plenty of those already) but rather a unique attempt to get inside his head; to understand what inspired him, what pissed him off, but mostly what drove a Picasso-like need to create up until the end (which came much too soon when he died of prostate cancer in 1993, just weeks before his 53rd birthday).

In a recent IndieWire interview, Winter expounded on his decision to take an intimate approach:

“I came up in the entertainment industry, where you’re surrounded with mythologizing and so much bullshit. It’s so hard to tear those things down and find human beings there or retain your own humanity. So I think there was an aspect of my own interest in Zappa, how he retained his humanity and the consequences he faced for living the life that he did that compelled me all the way through.”

Winter was given unprecedented access to the family archives, so he had his work cut out for him:

“For me, the gold in his vault was hours and hours and hours of him shooting the shit. The stuff that we made narration out of was literally him on his easy chair in the basement talking to Matt Groening or talking to a musician or a pundit. We just cut all the other people out and made a narrative. Then we chopped the narrative up, so he would start his prison story in ’68, he would keep it going in ’85, and he would end it in ’92. We’d use all of that in one sentence. So, we were very aware of the idea of trying to demystify yourself while you re-mythologize yourself which was something Zappa did himself.”

One prevalent theme in Winter’s portrait is that Zappa was an artist with intense creative focus (the one time I got to see him perform in Troy, New York in 1976 I remember marveling how he was able to sing, play and conduct the band…all while chain-smoking through the entire set). His perfectionism and 3-dimensional chess mindset (as Winter appears to be implying) could have contributed to Zappa’s reputation as a brusque and manipulative “boss” with some of his players.

That said, there is also a well-chosen roster of former band members (Ruth Underwood, Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, Steve Vai, et.al.) and creative collaborators on hand to parse his strengths and weaknesses from a first-hand view, and offer illuminating insight into the blood, sweat, and toil that went into producing such an impressive body of work (over 60 albums released in Zappa’s lifetime, plus uncounted hours of live and studio tapes spanning 30 years that languish in the family vaults). Some of them do acknowledge that Zappa could be cold and dismissive…well, an asshole.

But as The Burning Sensations sang: Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Winter’s main thrust isn’t about the traumas and psychodramas. It is about the creative process of an iconoclast who (by his own admission), worked day and night composing the music that he wanted to listen to, simply because no one else was. And if other people happened to like it…he was cool with that.

“Zappa” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

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As a musician, Eric Clapton has rarely played off-key…but he really hit a sour note with music fans attending a 1976 concert in Birmingham, England. During the performance, Clapton launched into a shocking, racial epithet-laden anti-immigrant harangue, essentially parroting the tenets of the fascistic, far-right National Front organization that was gaining substantial political power and declaring his glowing admiration for former Conservative MP-turned demagogue Enoch Powell.

Clapton wasn’t the only U.K. rock luminary at the time who sounded like he was ready for the white room with no windows or distractions. David Bowie infamously stated in one interview “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.”  (Bowie would later blame it on the drugs, laughing off the comments as “theatrical observations”). Rod Stewart made the unfortunate comment “…immigrants should be sent home.”

Something else was trending in the U.K. music scene circa 1976-the burgeoning punk movement. In addition to its prime directive to shake up the rock establishment that included the likes of Messrs. Clapton, Bowie and Stewart, there was an anti-fascist political ethos streaking through the punk ranks.

Granted, there was a certain segment of the “skinhead” subculture that became synonymous with National Front rhetoric…but not all skinheads were NF sympathizers. In short, it wasn’t simply Mods vs. Rockers anymore. The U.K. music scene had become …complicated.

In her documentary White Riot (***), Rubika Shaw takes a valiant stab at sorting all that out in 80 minutes; specifically through the lens of the “Rock Against Racism” movement that was ignited (in part) by Clapton’s ill-advised foray into spoken word performance in 1976, and culminated in a game-changing 1978 rally/music festival in London’s Victoria Park headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band that was attended by an estimated 100,000.

Shaw mixes archival clips and interviews with present day ruminations from some of RAR’s movers and shakers, primarily represented by photographer/political activist David “Red” Saunders. Sanders, whose background ran the gamut from underground theater player and war photojournalist to doing professional photography for ad agencies, periodicals, and album covers, was the co-founder of Temporary Hoarding, the punk fanzine that became the “voice” of RAR.

In the film, Saunders recalls how he kick-started RAR with this letter to the U.K. music press:

When I read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, I nearly puked. What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. So you’re going to stand for MP and you think we’re being colonised by black people. Come on… you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B? You’ve got to fight the racist poison, otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their chequebooks and plastic crap. Rock was and still can be a real progressive culture, not a package mail-order stick-on nightmare of mediocre garbage. We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music – we urge support – all those interested please write to:

ROCK AGAINST RACISM,

Box M, 8 Cotton Gardens, London E2 8DN

P. S. ‘Who shot the Sheriff’, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

[Signed] Peter Bruno, Angela Follett, Red Saunders, Jo Wreford, Dave Courts, Roger Huddle, Mike Stadler, etc.

Now there is a mission statement that says: “Let’s kill it before it grows.”

And it was growing; “it” being the influence of the National Front. Initially flitting about the fringes of British politics as a coalition of radical right-wing groups in the 60s, the organization had a more centralized platform by the end of the decade. They had found a “champion” of sorts in Enoch Powell, a Conservative Party politician who gave an inflammatory address in 1968 dubbed the “Rivers of Blood speech”.

The speech was a populist appeal against non-white immigration into Britain, advocating (among other things) a repatriation program. While not as radical as the NF’s stand on immigrants (basically “round ’em up and send ’em all back”) it gave them a sense of empowerment to have a high-profile government official as an ideological ally (sound familiar?).

Stand back and stand by…there’s more.

There are a number of items that “sound familiar” in Shaw’s film, particularly in the recounting of an August 1977 clash in the streets between members of the National Front (who had organized an anti-immigrant march) and counter demonstrators. There was a strong police presence; the day would come to mark the first time they used riot shields on mainland Britain.

A number of the Bobbies also let their white slips show by demonstrating a marked preference for using strong arm tactics against the counter-demonstrators (many of whom were people of color), while coddling the NF marchers (August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin…anyone?).

Modern parallels resonate well outside the Colonies. From an April 2020 Guardian article:

Contemporary Britain is battling far-right rhetoric similar to that which divided the country in the 1970s, with the Brexit debate revealing how politicians continue to stoke racial tension, according to the director of a film about the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR).

Rubika Shah, the director of a new documentary about the lead up to RAR’s march and concert in east London’s on 30 April 1978, says the UK is still struggling to counter the far-right populism that made the National Front a force in the 1970s.

“There are so many similarities,” Shah said. “I hope people look at some of the stuff that was happening in the late 70s and think: ‘Wow, this is actually happening now.’” […]

Shah said she deliberately included National Front slogans such as “It’s our country, let’s win it back” to show their echoes in modern campaigning, such as Dominic Cummings’ “Take back control” mantra that was used during the Brexit referendum. “It’s scary how that language creeps back in,” she said.

The director said she was shocked to hear Boris Johnson use the term “invisible mugger” to describe the Coronavirus, as “mugger” was a word used by the National Front and right-wing media to describe black people in the 1970s.

Make America Great Again!

Shaw’s film is engaging, fast-paced, and infused with a cheeky “D.I.Y.” attitude. Considering all the angles she covers, it may be a little too fast-paced; political junkies might find themselves craving a deeper dive into backstory and context. Music fans may be disappointed that despite the film’s title (taken from the eponymous Clash song), the film is not exclusively “about” the punk scene (tiny snippets of performance footage is the best you’ll get).

Still, it’s a fascinating bit of sociopolitical history, and an uplifting reminder that even in the darkest of times, a righteous confluence of art and politics can affect real and positive change.

“White Riot” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms